Today’s Top Space Headline –NASA’s Next Step in the Quest for Alien Earths: “Could Ultimately Discover 20,000 New Planets”

 
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Launching in April on a two-year primary mission, the observatory could ultimately discover 20,000 planets—some of which could be much like our own. Ultimately, TESS could contribute as many as 20,000 new planets to the exoplanet catalogue, most of which will be circling M-dwarf stars that are one quarter to one half the diameter of the sun and much dimmer and cooler. M-dwarfs, which comprise about 70 percent of stars in the Milky Way, are TESS’s primary targets.


“To me the most exciting thing about any new mission is the thing you don’t expect,” says project scientist Stephen Rinehart, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I really hope that somewhere along the line we find something bizarre, something that we can’t explain that requires us to really think hard about what it is we’re seeing. I think we will, but I have no idea what it will be.”

 

TESS was proposed even before NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, demonstrated the viability of a space-based exoplanet survey reports Irene Klotz in today's Scientific American. Both telescopes use the so-called “transit” method (as opposed to these techniques) to find planets, looking for worlds in silhouette as they pass in front of their parent stars relative to the telescopes’ lines of sight. Kepler not only established transits as the dominant planet-hunting technique, it also stunningly revealed our galaxy brims with planets, particularly worlds two to four times the size of Earth.

 

 

During its initial mission, Kepler scouted stars more than a thousand light-years away in a patch of sky within the constellations Cygnus, Lyra and Draco. So far, scientists have confirmed 2,341 exoplanets circling stars in Kepler’s original pool of some 170,000 targets. Another 4,496 candidate planets are pending, but many may never be confirmed because their stellar hosts are too dim to be easily observed by ground-based telescopes for necessary follow-up studies.

The TESS team took the opposite approach, starting with what ground observations would be needed to follow-up and confirm candidate transiting Earth-like planets, and then deciding on specific targets for the telescope. They selected about 200,000 stars for study during TESS’s two-year primary mission. Each of those target stars already has been plotted in detail by the European Space Agency’s ongoing Gaia space telescope, which is creating the best-yet all-sky catalogue of stellar positions and distances.

Most of TESS’s targets are within 300 light-years from Earth, significantly closer and up to a hundred times brighter than most of the stars studied by Kepler. “On TESS, we will be able to do ground-based follow-up on all of them. It will just be a matter of priorities, not abilities,” says Rinehart.

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